During these uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to become depressed, anxious and angry. I find I am angry a lot these days, reacting to things and lashing out when normally I would slow down and exercise patience. Rage is a symptom of anxiety. The easy thing to do in times like this would be to indulge the anger. To blame other people. To fall back into the old patterns of divisiveness that have marred our society until they have ignited into a tinderbox. Racial, political, generational tensions are coming to a head. I went on a walk today around my neighborhood and I saw angry signs on front doors with a red stop sign, yelling at people to stay away.
I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be like that.
Yes, it’s a scary world out there. Yes, this virus is a war and should be taken seriously and you should stay home. But perhaps the narrative should be reframed. It’s not a punishment. It’s not a conspiracy theory. Don’t do it out of fear and hate.
Do it, instead, out of love. Do it because you care about other people. You care about the world. This could be an unprecedented time in our history to collectively come together to protect each other by staying home. We have not undergone a collective consciousness like this since wartime, and this is, really, a war. A war against a virus.
What I am talking about is really called empathy. Empathy, in my humble opinion, is the most powerful weapon in the world. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all, because through telling stories, we learn how empathy is practiced.
You think you know empathy. But it’s not simple. It’s not a position of weakness. Empathy is not kindness, gentleness, or showing compassion to others. That is part of it. Empathy is, rather, the ability to see the world with another’s eyes, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is the ability to see someone’s pain when you don’t have any expectation of personal gain or reward, and when you don’t have a social connection to them. They’re not your family, they don’t attend your church, they’re not your neighbors, they’re not your coworkers or a client, they are not your ethnicity. Empathy is the act of seeing someone’s soul and recognizing it as your own, even if you might not have shared the same experiences.
I can only give an example from my own personal experiences.
For five years I worked as a courtroom clerk, side by side assisting a circuit court judge with data entry, managing the courtroom, customer service and ensuring hearings were recorded. I took this job as a departure from a career in journalism and PR. I got laid off from a PR job and my mental health was not in a good place. I had finally recognized that my dream of writing for a living was actually ruining my mental health. So I decided I needed a complete pivot, a break, something completely out of my wheelhouse. I didn’t want to say I was a writer any more. I needed a new identity.
So I applied for everything, and this job accepted me. There was a training program. I quickly grew to care for the people who worked there who were trying their best to serve the people of the county at desperate times in their lives. And something else unexpected happened. I found myself again. Through empathy, and through public service. If there is a common thread through my non-linear career path, it is public service.
Perhaps other people would think it was a difficult, stressful, thankless job, and in many ways it was. You are dealing with customers day in and day out whom the rest of society has forgotten and tossed aside, people who have exhausted their second chances. Drug addicts, alcoholics, violent personalities, adults who grew up in broken, abusive homes who never left the cycle. It’s easy to view them with the eyes of everyone else who judges them. “Make good choices,” society says. They made bad ones. So they deserve… what?
My way of managing the courtroom was through kindness and compassion. I rarely yelled. I listened to people. I treated them like humans deserving of respect and empathy, no matter what they did, what their problems were. Victims, defendants, civil respondents, it didn’t matter. Everyone got my kindness. Maybe you would think people would take advantage of that and walk all over me. Sure, some did. But most did not. Most recognized respect even though they got so little of it, and gave respect back in return.
Sometimes, it felt like no one noticed. I didn’t do it with an expectation of reward or gain, other than it felt personally rewarding to do the right thing and serve people well.
Until one day, like any other day, I walked through the hallway of this 100-year-old building from the courtroom to the front office and passed by a woman sitting on the wooden benches. She was a drug addict and had been in and out of the system for years. A story you’ve heard a million times before. She sat there, talking to the voices in her head. I didn’t think she noticed me, but I smiled at her. In a moment of clarity she met my gaze and smiled back. “Thank you for your kindness,” she said, earnestly, as if she remembered all those other times I was kind to her before, and not just this time.
I realized, then, with a jolt of electricity, the power of empathy. Empathy can change lives. Empathy can bring peace. Empathy can connect us in incredible ways.
I’m not saying this won’t be hard. It already is hard. Economically, many will suffer. Many have to keep working. I will keep working. I, too, am worried about getting laid off. I imagine everyone is a little worried about that. If you’re not worried yourself, try practicing empathy for those who are. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Nothing will ever be the same again.
But a virus doesn’t care about our divisions, our hatreds, our biases, our economic circumstances, our history. A virus doesn’t care about our religious beliefs or political persuasions. A virus doesn’t care about us.
But we, in our shared circumstance of humanity, have the capacity for compassion. We have room to care, even if we can not physically touch. We can touch others with empathy.
And that is the most powerful force on earth.
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